A Sublime Landscape

Some might consider it little more than a proverbial wide spot in the road, but Sublime, Texas — population seventy-five or so — has a post office, a Lutheran church founded in 1868, and some of 2021’s earliest bluebonnets.

Traveling west of town on Alternate Highway 90 last weekend, I began to see pastures and rangeland that were filling with flowers. Before long, those familiar reds and blues spread among the oaks will be joined by an extravagance of colorful yellows, pinks, and whites.

No one around Sublime minds a pure blue field, of course.

After all, this is the highway and these are the fields that gave rise to one of the loveliest tributes possible to our state wildflower, and our “sweet bluebonnet spring.”

You don’t have to be Texan to get a tear in your eye when you hear Emmylou and Willie sing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway,” but if you are a Texan, you probably can’t help it. I know I can’t.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Taking Refuge in Walktober

A view of Coushatta Creek

Earlier this month, I noticed several bloggers posting about an event called ‘Walktober.’ It didn’t take long to find the common link: an invitation by Robin, of Breezes at Dawn, to walk, ride, kayak, or hike into new territory or old as a way of celebrating this season of transition.

While many participants shared images of glorious autumn color, we’re still surrounded by mostly-green foliage here in southeast Texas; color changes in our trees often don’t appear until mid-to-late November. Still, autumn flowers and grasses, ripening berries, and lingering summer blooms add both color and interest to the landscape.

At the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, seasonal variety on the prairie is complemented by the presence of a lake and riparian corridors. After visits on October 4 and 18, I became determined to allow even more time for exploring all of the Refuge’s delights.

Coushatta Creek, named for the tribe which began populating Texas’s Big Thicket in the late 1700s, rises in northeastern Colorado County, runs to the southeast, and eventually joins the San Bernard River.The lower part of the creek’s course bisects the Attwater refuge, providing a rich source of food and shelter.

Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) are especially abundant along the creek’s edge
Drummond’s wood-sorrel (Oxalis drummondii), familiar in springtime, lingers on
A splash of yellow partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) shines against the creek waters A beetle, a spider, a thrip, and a slug share a rosy palafox bloom (Palafoxia rosea)

After crossing Coushatta creek on a small bridge, a trail leads to Horseshoe Lake. A magnet for many of the more than 150 species of birds sighted on the refuge, the lake fills with waterlilies and lotuses in season.

White American waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)

A single Maryland Meadow Beauty bloomed on a hillside below the lake. Introduced to the flower on the Nash Prairie, I’ve often found it in east Texas, as well.

Maryland meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana)

The sandy trail leading to the bird blind was filled with sun-loving plants, including the small but lovely bracted fanpetals, and another flower that’s common here both in spring and in fall: crow poison.

Bracted fanpetals (Sida ciliaris)
Crow poison (Nothoscordum bivalve)

Brandon Melton, one of the biologists on staff at the refuge, identified this camphorweed for me. Although I didn’t hike to the other side of the lake, I’m certain this plant figured prominently in the lovely yellow glow I shared in a previous post.

Camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris)

Insects were everywhere, of course. Some were familiar, but this small moth — a little worse for wear but still active — was a fine discovery. The adult reportedly flies from September to December, favoring many fall-blooming Texas species like Eupatorium spp.

White-tipped black (Melanchroia chephise)

Two common mistflowers were present on refuge land: one in a meadow near the lake, and one at the edge of woodland shade. After examining their leaves and stems, I’m more confident in my ability to identify the species in the future.

Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium dissectum)
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Even absent the sight of an Attwater Prairie Chicken, the prairie itself is remarkably varied and beautiful.

The sight of Baccharis neglecta gracefully bending before the wind makes one of its common names, ‘false willow,’ understandable. Other names, referencing Roosevelt, the Depression, and poverty, recall attempts to recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl by planting Baccharis species to revegetate drought-damaged soils.

Poverty weed, or Roosevelt weed (Baccharis neglecta)

Already fading but still lovely, heartsepal buckwheat spread across the land — a new addition to my growing list of favorite white flowers.

Heartsepal buckwheat (Eriogonum multiflorum)

Here and there, the buckwheat was accompanied by a few remaining stems of Lindheimer’s beeblossom, or gaura. Gaura is derived from the Greek gauros, or ‘superb’ — a perfect descriptor for these flowers. The specific epithet honors Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), Texas botanist extraordinaire.

Lindheimer’s beeblossom, or gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)

If this companion of the pretty white calf I photographed nearby was trying to hide, he needed to find something more substantial than a stand of airy bladderpod.

Bladderpod (Sesbania vesicaria)

While most of the leaves had dropped and the seedpods were drying, recent rains had encouraged new growth, including the emergence of this pretty bladderpod flower.

An emerging late bladderpod bloom

Coincidentally, I’d come across this somehow familiar plant on the west end of Galveston Island a week earlier. Finally, I found the common name: bushy goldentop. The name’s certainly appropriate, since the flowers are as golden as any goldenrod.

Bushy goldentop (Euthamia leptocephala)

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the prairie was the widespread presence of Gulf Muhly, a pretty native grass I’d seen only in landscape plantings. It complemented both the heartsepal buckwheat and a variety of yellow flowers beautifully.

Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
A closer view of the prettiest grass in the world

Of course sunflowers were everywhere. I was intrigued to find the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, less common than swamp sunflowers or the so-called tickseed sunflower, which belongs in an entirely different genus.

Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Tickseed Sunflower (Bidens aristosa)

But the final amazement of the day was this single white prickly poppy. One of my favorite flowers, it had set up shop in the midst of buckwheat and bladderpod only feet from the end of the auto route. If it weren’t entirely too fanciful, I might have imagined Nature saying, “Here’s one last flower, just for you.”

White prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora)

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.

Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.